A Tale of Two Parks: Contesting History Along the Calexico/Mexicali Border

February 5, 2013

Having grown up two blocks from the Calexico/Mexicali international border, the infrastructure of national sovereignty (barriers, checkpoints, military-grade trucks, and surveillance towers) was a normalized inconvenience to me, as it meant two-hour delays to traverse the 200 feet to and from Mexico. Certainly, the area’s most striking feature of national planning is the border fence itself. Normalized but never naturalized, this chunk of steel stitched arbitrarily through the flat desert cannot easily claim legitimacy. Over the winter break, I became aware of how municipal planning decisions around the barrier (particularly two parks) consciously aid and undermine this project of imperial legitimacy.

I found that the planning decisions around the barrier enacted a process described by Columbia Professor Timothy Mitchell in his book Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics and Modernity. Twentieth century imperialism, Mitchell argues in it, was articulated as the rational conquest of nature by universal modernity rather than a process of arbitrary violence—urban renewal, agriculture industrialization, and irrigation projects were among the most common expressions of this. In this particular border territory, two parks, one in Calexico and the other in Mexico, contest the legitimacy of the border division: the Mexican park by inserting history into the landscape, the U.S. park by suggesting ahistorical peace.

Less than thirty feet away from the international barrier stands a Mexican municipal park commemorating one of the Mexican-American War’s most dramatic episodes: the Parque Niños Héroes (Park of the Heroic Children). It commemorates the 1847 siege of Chapultepec Castle, the decisive event in the U.S. invasion of Mexico City that resulted in the annexation of half of Mexico (including California). The story goes that on the day of the siege, the Mexican federal army was away and left only six teenage cadets (ages 14-19) to guard the national castle. Facing the force of the invading U.S. army, the Mexican cadets fought helplessly to protect the castle. The siege concluded, as any elementary student in Mexico can tell you, with the suicide of Juan Escutia, a cadet who wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and jumped to his death from one of the castle walls.

The decision by Mexicali municipal planners in the 1910s to place a replica of the national monument to the Niños Héroes at the center of this public park imprinted the border landscape with the history of its violent production. In fact, municipal planners filled the surrounding area with reminders to the violence of foreign occupation.  The street separating the park from the border fence, for instance, is Av. Cristóbal Colón, (Christopher Columbus Avenue). At the head of the park is the Municipal House of Culture—a century-old neoclassical building that still bears the name of tortured Aztec Emperor Cuauhtémoc on its relief. And a short walk away, one finds large boulevards named after revolutionary heroes, reformist politicians, and rebel poets and clergymen.

The Parque Niños Héroes stands as a stark foil to Border Friendship Park, located less than a mile away on the U.S. side of the international barrier. This smaller park, awkwardly located at the mouth of the international port of entry, becomes too congested with automobile traffic to encourage widespread public use. Surrounding the park is Imperial  Ave., numbered streets, and avenues named after early 20th century desert pioneers. Border Friendship Park makes no reference to the history and politics of the border; it only affirms peace with the present territorial arrangement.

Once again, boulevards, parks, and buildings on the southern side of the barrier mark the land with violence and remind residents of the unnatural processes that produced the border. But on the U.S. side, rational and universalizing claims of apolitical space are made with numbered streets and avenues named after “desert pioneers” who conquered the scorching desert with their ambitious irrigation infrastructure (see: All-American Canal and Imperial Dam).

If my 22-year-long unawareness of this bi-national contestation is any evidence, both these sets of municipal planning decisions exert little effect on those who actually occupy these spaces and who are unconcerned with claims of national sovereignty (included are bi-national families, agricultural laborers, drug smugglers, and adventure seeking teens). In a sense then, these parks deny agency to the inhabitants of this particular border region—a recognition that would undermine claims of national sovereignty for both nations.

The Mexicali park that leads to the neo-classical House of Culture (offering dance, painting, theatre, and music classes to Mexicali youth) is flanked by the block-wide “La Casona” strip club, attracting mostly American youth. Along the park, street vendors depend on the line of cars entering the U.S. to sell food and artisanal goods. Rather than reacting to the reminders of violence, vendors and businesses neighboring the barrier try to attract U.S. clientele and dollars.

Border Friendship Park made headlines a decade ago when reports surfaced that it was a popular spot for drug smugglers. With a clear view of incoming international traffic, spotters would track the movement of concealed narcotics from the park. These reports led the Calexico City Council to build an extension Police station at the head of the park. Border Friendship Park, the “wedge of grass” now sandwiched between a police substation and Homeland Security at the international checkpoint, poorly hides the incomplete and imperfect exercise of U.S. sovereignty over the border and the narrative of border friendship it promotes.

These two parks reveal an interesting history of imperial contestation through municipal planning, but speak to the limits of attaching a space to historical moments irrelevant to the everyday life of those using the space. The failures of these planning decisions stem from the assumption that border communities feel themselves to occupy two distinct places with different histories—rather than one profoundly interconnected and common place.

Luis Flores is a recent UC Berkeley graduate with degrees in Political Economy and History. He is currently a researcher for the Oakland Institute and works at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. Luis can be reached at jr.luisf@gmail.com.